May 27, 2019
What is my illuminated manuscript or book or hours worth? We have been active buyers of illuminated manuscripts for years, privately and at auction, and can certainly assist with the proper evaluation of a manuscript.
Interestingly, books of hours are not “rare.” Tens of thousands of them have survived to the present day, often highly valued, preserved, and handed down in wills over the centuries. They were the most popular books of the Middle Ages and meant for private devotion. They have rightfully been called a medieval bestseller. Their purpose was to provide ordinary people a book that enabled private reading and meditation,.
Valuing a book of hours requires more connoisseurship than just a printed book because many can be considered medieval works of art. So what is such a ‘book’ worth? There are books of hours that are worth as little as $10,000, or less if they are incomplete or have had their miniatures removed, effaced, or adulterated. Finer books of hours can be bought for $100K and some of the most luxurious go into the millions, albeit you should restrain your excitement as it is very unlikely you have one originally commissioned for king or queen .
The price of a book of hours depends largely on the quality of the miniatures or the school and artists who painted them. This is why even a collection of single leaves can command high prices. So, how does one determine quality? The refinement of the underlying drawing, the delicacy of the colors, the application of gilt all play an important role in how finely the manuscript was executed. Also, if your manuscript has drolleries – small decorative figures in the margins like monkeys, dragons, elephants – this will certainly add significant value. Usually a proper evaluation though will require first hand study and research.
Another factor is of course the age of the manuscript. As a rule of thumb, unlike books, the older your manuscript is, the more valuable it becomes. Most book of hours date from the second half of 15th century, and any before that period are increasingly rare in commerce and often command significant premiums.
It should be emphasized, there are as well many other medieval manuscripts, including deceptively simple looking ones – unadorned and sometimes not even particularly attractive. There are theological works, bibles, law, medical and literary manuscripts for instance.. Literary examples are particularly rare – we recently paid $20.000 for a manuscript about love and it had only had 20 leaves! It is essential to study a manuscript very carefully firsthand as its importance can turn on very small details. For instance, a number of years ago we bought a manuscript, misidentified by a reputable auction house, as belonging to an incomplete book of hours (as it lacked miniatures), but it turned out to be an immensely important Dutch literary text.
There are some resources a private person can consult for rough comparables:
- American Book Prices Current is a subscriber site that contains a manuscript database of old sales but no illustrations (often essential)
- Sothebys and Christies each have auction record databases on their sites of books of hours that have sold in previous auctions.
And of course, if you send photos of any manuscript to firstname.lastname@example.org or text 6464691851, I am happy to assist and give a free evaluation as well as provide specific auction comparables. You can also stop by our gallery by appt. at 1050 Lexington Ave Gallery 93 (at 55th St.) to show us in person